I’ve never been to Malaysia before. I’ve never even had a layover there. I’ve never had reason to use my tiny amount of Bahasa Indonesian which is leftover from years 3-8 and so very similar to Bahasa Malay…
But sometimes I feel like I have.
Not so much because so many of my closest friends have their ancestral roots in Malaysia and so when they travel to visit their families I see lots of photos and hear lots of tales of the malls of KL and the splashes of the theme park there.
More because of my own family history. Despite the fact that I am as white bread as they come, I have my own roots laid down in Malaysian soil. My granddad was in the RAAF and as you may be aware, there is an Australian Air Force base situated in Penang which he was stationed at for about 2 and a half years. My grandmother, mother and two uncles joined him and lived there, in the humidity and the heat and exotic haze- a family of five forever intertwined with the cultural heritage of that tiny island which is already so culturally diverse.
So, when I set foot there and hopped on a bus across the island- I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner, but more like someone who was returning to a dream. I’d heard so much about this place of fresh seafood straight from street vendors who didn’t just pass on their wares, but also the dirtiest words of their language to my infant uncle; this land of Chinese Swimming Clubs and monsoonal rains; this land of murtabak and chilli and curries and the call to prayer. I was prepared for the experience of revisiting this new/old place to feel strange but I don’t think I was quite as prepared as I originally thought.
Walking through Georgetown- with it’s heritage listed status and therefore it’s unchangedness- was like walking through a faded postcard. The houses were colourful, magical… an explosion of nostalgia and history which ticked every box I have. Cycling through the relatively quiet streets- especially on a cool Sunday morning- to explore and discover the street art before the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks descended only enhanced the feeling that I shared more than I knew with this old-new-familiar-foreign place. When I rode through the city to a hipster filled market, I knew that Penang knew me better than I ever thought it could.
When I booked my flights to Penang, I wanted- more than anything- to visit the house, or at least the area, my family lived in. I love and miss everyone who lived there very much at the moment and my granddad passed away 5 years ago now. I thought by visiting their old neighbourhood, I’d feel their presence so strongly and while I was hoping for this- I didn’t really expect it.
But when I arrived at the address and the trees were large and the house looked old- foreign- amongst the redone and renovated town houses surrounding it, I could feel the ghosts surrounding me. This was more than I hoped for. This was authentic and this road was the one my uncles and mum walked along everyday on their way to school. This tree which was once small, now shades the window of my mum’s old bedroom. This home housed my Grandma and Granddad, protecting them against the lashings of monsoonal rain- the cool tiles providing some comfort from the tropical heat. My uncle had a paddling pool in the front yard where there is now a motorbike. This house, this place, was a part of my history- despite the fact that my skin was now, after riding there in the hot morning sun, bright red- a feature that belies my EnglishIrishScottish blood.
The illusion of belonging was broken a little when a lady peeked out of the curtains- reminding me that this is not just mine and I am very much an outsider in this street, city, island, country, continent- but belonging is more than skin, it’s more than blood, it’s about where you feel you belong and where the people accept you.
After my journey to the past, I rode to the aforementioned hipster market and got talking to a lady selling kefir (because of course I did). She asked what I had been doing in Penang and I told her that I had just visited my mother’s old house. She smiled wide and said she remembered fondly the Australian officers who worked in Penang and Butterworth, remembered the makeshift bars and remembered the RAAF school which my mum and uncle attended. She said- honestly and genuinely- that I should bring my mother and grandmother back with me next time, that she would take us to the places they would know, they would remember. She said “welcome back” to me.
Belonging is about how you feel, where you feel accepted, where you feel a part of a shared past.
And Penang- against all odds- held that for me.
Also- I wish Identity and Belonging was still a part of the English curriculum because dayum, sample piece for Mind of a Thief for days…
I’ll post more about what I actually DID in Penang soon. I just felt like writing something other than what would essentially be a review post.